Where most people saw trash, Beatrice Mady ’76 saw a blank canvas waiting for color.
Mady was a contributing artist for Landfillart, a project that repurposes old metal hubcaps into paintings, sculptures and more. Mady’s work, a black-and-white painted disk filled with curving shapes called swans, represents her family and was inspired by a trip to Japan.
“I’ve been very involved with recycling and reusing … so it was a great idea to take something that was going to be thrown away and make it into beautiful art,” she said.
When she’s not creating with found pieces, Mady draws from her travels — to places including Croatia, Egypt, the American Southwest and Germany — to craft photographs, oil paintings and digital work.
“The subject matter is abstract, not literal; I try to capture the flavor of the country I visited,” she said.
At any given time, she might have five paintings and a handful of digital pieces in progress. But when you’re passionate about something, Mady says, it doesn’t feel like work: “I don’t think there’s a separation between work and creating art. I make art for me, out of my need for creating something.”
An associate professor of graphic arts at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, Mady shares her passion with students in much the same way her professors at UD once did as she majored in painting.
“I love teaching because it keeps me fresh in the field. It’s nice to share my love of the arts with others who are burgeoning artists,” she said.
And for those burgeoning artists, Mady had a few words of advice: “Practice your craft and then develop your work. Once it’s like breathing, you can create a work of art and then develop your own style. Your work is good, even if people are saying no. Eventually, someone will say yes.”
The traditional-foot tapping jazz, not the finger-snapping kind. Dixieland, Ragtime and New Orleans’ style. That’s the type of jazz Bob Ashman ’59 wants to hear, and it’s what he wants to share.
After graduation and a stint in the Army, Ashman worked for Procter & Gamble for 36 years. Part of his time was spent in
New Orleans, where Ashman would hear plenty of jazz, but it wasn’t where he fell in love with it.
“In the mid-’50s, I lived on Alberta Street across from the Fieldhouse,” Ashman said. “There was a bar downtown, and a bunch of us would go down there every time Carl Halen’s Gin Bottle Seven played.” Included in the bunch of friends was Ashman’s future wife, Connie Masten ’57.
The close-knit community of Flyers isn’t so different from what Ashman experienced when he started the Cape May Traditional Jazz Society nine years ago in New Jersey.
“I don’t play, and I thought the most difficult part about starting the society would be finding musicians. It was the easiest,” Ashman said. “They’re like a band of brothers.”
When word got out that Ashman was booking traditional jazz bands once a month, they reached out to him. Like the crowds that come to hear the music, the players do it for the love of the music.
“Sometimes we lose a few bucks. When we make money, we donate it to a local food bank,” Ashman said.
Like so many Flyers, Ashman is in it for the love, and he’s willing to give back to the community. It doesn’t come without effort.
“If you want something to happen, you’ve got to get off your ass and do it. We’re a small group,” said Ashman describing the Cape May Traditional Jazz Society Board. “We’re all retired, and we handle everything from booking the bands to setting up the chairs.”
The payment? Traditional jazz, and that’s music to his ears.
In early May, archaeologist Dorian Borbonus drove two visitors from central Rome out to the countryside and parked. A stray dog wandered the edge of an ancient wall as we got out and stretched our legs. Beneath our feet were dark, glass-smooth stones the size of manhole covers laid by Roman workers two millennia ago. We were at the bottom of a hill on the ancient Appian Way, one of the most important Roman roads. The incline we were about to climb, Borbonus explained, was formed by 260,000-year-old lava flow that originated in the Alban Hills and stopped at this very spot.
We began to make our way uphill on Via Appia Antica. Ahead of us, our destination peeked out over the tree tops against a blue sky. We were coming to see what was meant to be the last resting place of a woman named Caecilia Metella.
Caecilia Metella is today one of the most widely known women of ancient Rome. Yet, experts know almost nothing about her. Every trace of evidence about the life she lived is lost to history except one, which stood on the crest of the hill we were approaching. It is a funerary monument erected after her death, a cylindrical mausoleum about three stories high and 100 feet in diameter ringed with limestone slabs.
Caecilia Metella’s tomb is one of hundreds of Roman funerary sites that Borbonus, a UD associate professor of history, has visited during more than a decade of research. Few are as grand as hers, but then few Romans lived in the luxury she presumably did. Mausoleums such as this were for members of Rome’s elite families, which numbered several hundred families in the first century. But Rome’s population reached as high as a million in that period. The vast majority of people were buried more simply. As was the custom of the time, they were cremated, and their ashes were placed, by law, beyond the city walls.
While scholars have studied individual sites, none has so far done what Borbonus spent the 2016-17 academic year in Rome laying the groundwork to do. His vision and plan is to develop the first-ever study of life in ancient Rome over a 400-year period as it can be understood through its changing burial practices. If Borbonus is successful — and he openly admits he is not sure he will be — his history will slash across social class because it will have at its roots the one experience inescapable for everyone rich and poor, free and slave, high and low. Everyone dies.
Caecilia’s family must’ve thought she was very special, I speculated.
Maybe or maybe not, Borbonus replied. “This is just meant to be a super-public tomb. It’s hard to get the whole tomb in your point of view, and it really exploits its position on top of the hill.”
The real point of the monument was how it displayed the family’s importance, he said. They wanted everyone who passed by to see their wealth and power.
We bought our tickets and went inside. Her crypt was empty, likely looted centuries ago.
Mausoleums, crypts, remains.
Why study funerary culture? Borbonus admits it can be a macabre and sometimes creepy experience. Descending into the underground tombs so common in Rome can feel “otherwordly,” he once wrote.
One reason is that studies of ancient Rome suffer from an understandable bias toward elites. Emperors, senators and families like Caecilia Metella’s are the people about whom Tacitus, Seneca and such wrote. Much less is known about the vast majority of Romans who were not elite. For many, a funerary inscription is the only writing about them that survives, if it exists at all. Even in their absence, funerary practices offer other clues. Are tombs hidden or monumental? Are people buried singly or with others? What do decorations suggest was important to them? The ways in which even anonymous people were buried offers a rare avenue for learning about their lives.
Borbonus finds himself empathizing with people whose inscriptions he reads while at the same time seeing how different their social experience was from ours. This recognition allows him to step out of our modern life and reflect on it from afar.
“One of the things I think about death and burial in antiquity is that it’s much more integrated with life,” he said. “I can recognize this only by studying it and reflecting on modern societies and being struck by how, you know, old people don’t live with their families anymore but are in a home, for example. We try to push old age, the process of dying, death and how to cope with it away. Or, at least it’s compartmentalized much more than in ancient society. I think I learn something about modern societies by studying the Romans.”
The chief difficulty with studying funerary culture in Rome is partly administrative — five bureaucracies manage the sites around the city — and partly historical. Roman ruins have been excavated and put on display for centuries. But excavation, Borbonus said, is an act of destruction. Once someone digs out a site, no one else can redig it.
The American Academy in Rome sits atop Gianicolo, a hill just west of the Tiber River that offers sweeping views of the city that often make the covers of tourist guidebooks. The academy traces its history to the late 19th century, when a group of American scholars sought a European base for studying classical art. Today, it hosts residents, fellows and, each year, up to 30 recipients of the prestigious Rome Prize, which provides a stipend, room and board and other benefits for 11 months to support innovative scholarly and creative projects.
Borbonus, a German citizen, snagged the only 2016-17 Rome Prize available to a non-U.S. citizen. Midway through his time in Rome, his spouse, Myrna Gabbe, a UD associate professor of ancient philosophy, and their two children joined him. The couple met in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where their first conversation was about her upcoming interview for a faculty position at UD. She landed the job, and he followed, eventually earning a full-time position in the history department, where he teaches courses on ancient Greek and Roman history.
In a courtyard in the American Academy’s main building, Borbonus stood in front of inscriptions on marble slabs on the wall, many just a little smaller than a standard diner booth tabletop. To my untrained eye, they were fascinating but inscrutable. With his arm outstretched from the sleeve of his black leather jacket, Borbonus pointed and began deciphering what many of them had in common. The giveaway was the writing at the
top of many of them, either “DM” or the words that these letters abbreviate: “Dis Manibus.”
“It means ‘to the spirits of the deceased,’” he said. These were all funerary inscriptions that once adorned burial sites. “This invocation probably honors both the deceased mentioned in the inscriptions and potentially all other deceased ancestors of the family.”
The inscriptions on the slabs hanging here have value, but for Borbonus it’s limited. He illustrated the point two days later in Villa Borghese, a rambling public park in central Rome. As we walked along a gravel path toward a playground, families pedaling four-seater carriages like bicycles rolled past. “There’s a monument just up ahead,” Borbonus said.
I looked, but all I saw was a small fountain.
“This is it,” he said as we came up to the fountain. At the top, springwater flowed from the mouth of a man flanked by two fish on his shoulders. The water fell into a rectangular marble box with reliefs carved on the side. It was the size of a small steamer trunk. “You see here. This is definitely a sarcophagus.” He was pointing at the marble box. “The top is a later addition, obviously.”
I’d heard that “obviously” before. He used it at Caecilia Metella’s tomb and another shaped like a pyramid. “Obviously” was his linguistic tool for dismissing a Renaissance or modern — and, hence, irrelevant to him — element of a structure. The additions were never obvious to me, but his adverb became an entry point into understanding how he reads evidence. Where I saw a single fountain, he saw an assemblage of historical phases that told him a story over time. But, as was the case here, not every story they told was much help to his research.
This sarcophagus, he said, had likely been unearthed centuries earlier, in medieval or even ancient times. Were it uncovered today, archaeologists would record significant data to establish its provenance. The sarcophagus was likely brought here to Villa Borghese sometime during the Renaissance, when this land was part of the estate of a wealthy cardinal and famed art collector. When this artifact was moved from its original location, it was separated from the context that gave it any archaeological meaning. Borbonus couldn’t even say whether the sarcophagus had probably come from somewhere near Rome.
Like the slabs hanging on the wall of the American Academy, this was a relic without a context. Despite the cost and care that went into creating it 20 or so centuries ago, it was now more useful as a fountain decoration than as an object for archaeological study.
Archaeologists, treasure hunters and thieves have been excavating Rome for centuries, but there remain places that are little-touched. Borbonus became interested in one narrow category of them when, working on a collaborative research project with his adviser, he was studying maps of the land along the Via Appia. The maps recorded a number of ancient, underground vaults recessed into walls for the burial of ashes — called columbaria — where nonelite Romans, often slaves and freed slaves attached to an aristocratic household, were buried. One intriguing aspect of this style of columbaria was how suddenly it appeared during the reign of Emperor Augustus and then, a generation or two later,
almost as suddenly disappeared.
In a book-length study of them, Borbonus described a typical one: “High interior walls are covered with an unbroken grid of little arched niches that give access to terra-cotta urns, usually two, immured in the wall, and their occupants are identified by little plaques with brief funerary inscriptions below the niche.” These columbaria, he further wrote, “may be less spectacular than the monuments of Rome’s political elite, but they are no less original.” Unlike the sarcophagus at Villa Borghese, this was evidence he could work with.
When Borbonus looked into them more, he found very little information. “There was not a ton published, and everybody said the same thing. The same three or four pieces of information were repeated over and over again.”
Finding them to study firsthand can be difficult. They’re often recognizable from above ground only by tell-tale undulations in a grassy field. Once found, they’re not easy to access. “None of them is open to the public, so you have to get a special permit. They’re all on private property, sometimes in the most exclusive suburbs of Rome, so it can be difficult to get in. Once I got in, I would have maybe 20 minutes to an hour to look at one of them,” he said.
In the first columbarium he climbed down into, he looked around as quickly as he could, reading inscriptions and looking for changes in the architecture over time.
“But then I ran out of time,” he said, so he simplified his tactics in his next visits. “I just reverted to taking pictures. Digital cameras were new. I only had a film camera. I developed so much film. I would survey the entire tomb just taking pictures I could look at later on. That was the best way to study them. It’s not ideal.”
In his photos from multiple columbaria, he examined the architecture, the size and composition of inscriptions, the drawings and any other decorative elements. The earliest columbaria show great architectural simplicity and regularity, epitaphs are brief, and decoration is minimal. Furthermore, they are underground. All of this data, he wrote, “squarely inverts the keen demand for attention” demanded by sites like Caecilia Metella’s monument. In the columbaria’s collective burial, Borbonus saw egalitarianism that signaled a moment of collective identity and social cohesion among Rome’s non-elite.
But it didn’t last long, just a few decades.
“At some point, people start to change the architecture,” Borbonus said. “You actually see that the columbaria style became outdated very quickly, and another style of burial became popular, namely, a marble object with nice decorations sculpted and an inscription right on it. A marble object is
always costly, right? So it becomes sort of more flashy. So you see that they introduce a hierarchy later on.”
With time, members of this social class of Romans began retrofitting existing columbaria to match emerging styles, making alterations to accommodate larger urns and building new types of funerary sites.
“They want a tomb with a large niche in the center where somebody who thinks they’re more important for whatever reason can be buried, whether it’s the owner of the tomb who has his slaves and freedmen buried on the sides or whether it’s somebody whose loss was particularly heartfelt.”
One possible explanation for the change, he suggests, is that these occupants “never solidified into a coherent social class,” perhaps because of the diversity of their circumstances.
Just as Borbonus used close STUDY of these columbaria to make conclusions about a narrow class of Romans over a short time period, he is now working to expand his scope to 400 years of Roman funerary culture at the height of its power, roughly 200 B.C. to the second century after Christ’s birth.
During his Rome Prize fellowship year, he visited every funerary site in Rome to which he could get. As with his early, feverish attempts to photograph columbaria on 20-minute visits, analysis would come later. The fellowship year was all about data gathering. Some sites are well-known, but others required special permits or pleading with reluctant landowners. And, every once in a while, a just-right opportunity came along.
Nine months into his 11-month fellowship with the American Academy of Rome, Borbonus stood outside a fence in the shadow of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, the second-largest of Rome’s four papal basilicas. Underground somewhere near his feet ran the ancient Via Ostiensis, a Roman road that led to an ancient port through which centuries of grain and other goods flowed from the empire’s far reaches to its center.
Like the Via Appia, this road out of the city was once lined with cemeteries. One of them — called Necropoli San Paolo, excavated a century ago and largely left alone since — was just on the other side of the fence in front of Borbonus. He’d secured a permit and funding to spend two weeks of intense study here, which he’d begin in a few days. He was eager to get started.
The site had roughly the same footprint as Liberty Hall on UD’s campus. It sat sunken in the ground but would have been at street level in Roman times, before centuries of Tiber River flooding added silt and 10 or so feet of elevation. Inside was a wealth of arches, urns, decorations, inscriptions and walkways that Borbonus would piece together into a story about how Romans used this tomb.
Two weeks was not a lot of time, but it was comparatively luxurious for him, so he indulged in a form of super-notetaking. Using specialized equipment, he gathered thousands of photographs and minute measurements, data points sufficient for creating a three-dimensional digital version of the cemetery. With it, he could study the cemetery more intensely later or, he dreamed, make it available online to other scholars and students. He suspected he could even simulate what it would have been like during one of the infamous floods of the Tiber.
The data he gathered here became one star in a constellation of data points about Roman funerary culture that he hopes will coalesce into a previously unseen story. Its outlines are not yet apparent to Borbonus, who returned to Dayton in July to begin his analysis and resume his teaching. It may be another 10 years before he has another opportunity like this, he said.
“I’m not solving the world’s problems,” he said. “It’s not going to change the world dramatically, but [through it] I think we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today.”
“It’s something that everybody faces, no matter who it is, where they live, no matter which time period they come from. It’s something that people faced in antiquity. It’s something that people face today. It’s a human experience.”
Matthew Dewald is a writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia. In 2009, he reported for this magazine from Barombi, a small village in Cameroon, West Africa, on six UD engineering students who worked with villagers to construct a pipeline to supply fresh water to the village. The pipeline is still operating today.No Comments
On a humid day in March, Rich May wandered into an antique store in Houston. He was seeking literature to help him write a paper for The Immaculata, a Marian magazine. Instead he found, sitting on the worn shelves, a small, copper-colored hymnal dating back to 1841.
He thought of his friend Father Tom Thompson, S.M. ’58, from the University of Dayton whom he would be seeing in May at the conference of the Mariological Society of America, which furthers scholarship and understanding of Mary, the Mother of Christ. May thought Thompson might enjoy receiving as a donation to the University’s Marian Library the book titled Songs of Mary for the Month of May and the Feast of the Blessed Virgin.
“God wanted me to get it for him, not my paper,” May said.
May knew the significance of the hymnal when he saw it. The hymnal originally came from Paris and was approved by the archbishop of Paris in 1841. At that time, Father William Joseph Chaminade was in Bordeaux, France, where he had founded in 1817 the Society of Mary, which in turn would found UD in 1850. Given proximity and the theme of the hymnal, the title would have likely been known to the Marianists in France, Thompson said.
Thompson said he was happy to receive the gift and began flipping through the roughly bound pages and translating the French texts.
“The lyrics are very warm and affective,” Thompson said. “There are hymns to the Virgin Mary reminding us that she was the mother of Christ. While we worship only God, we are devoted to Mary, as she was close to God.”
The songs are traditional to 19th-century France. While songs sung in church at that time were all in Latin, the hymns in French were sung at evening devotionals and in the home. The music includes two-handed full-chord notation for piano.
“Families likely held this hymnal and sang together around the piano,” Thompson said.
The book resides in the Marian Library at Roesch Library. Thompson said the hymnal is surprisingly well-kept for its age. There are no loose pages, and it is still able to be sung out of, though there are no plans to do so any time soon.
“It can be used, but it is more so a part of the history of the hymnody,” Thompson said.
How does the Marianist charism affect your everyday life?
We asked that question of Maureen O’Rourke ’05, director of PULSE, a post-graduate service program of the Society of Mary.
Two courses taught by Brother Ray Fitz, S.M., really nudged me to live the charism in the urban core of Dayton.
Living in the Five Oaks neighborhood for the last 12 years, I have served on the neighborhood association board with many committed individuals. Joan Means, in particular, has a steadfast dedication, confidence and passion for inner-ring neighborhoods.
At our local Catholic church — while serving spaghetti, delivering care packages and engaging children while their caregivers enjoyed their meal — Joan and I shared stories.
Since 2015 I have worked with Marianist PULSE (Partners in Urban Leadership, Service and Education). Each of our volunteers serves 35 hours per week from August to June at nonprofits in Dayton meeting needs for education, justice, integrity of creation and food access.
I told Joan of our challenges in finding housing. One evening, while Joan and I were offering desserts to guests, she said she’d like to buy the PULSE program a house.
We now own a home in the heart of Five Oaks.
Joan’s gift honors her late husband, Michael Means, who served on UD’s faculty for 38 years. Mike had a passion for medieval literature, the circus, the Marianist charism and family spirit of UD, and the Five Oaks neighborhood. He and Joan served on countless city and neighborhood committees and boards.
Her passion has enlivened her work as a Dayton Public Schools teacher, her neighborhood leadership and her gardening. As we prepared to close on our new home, Joan was meeting neighbors, weeding the yard and dropping off pots of flower arrangements.
The home will be called the Michael Means Marianist PULSE Community. In the dining room volunteers will gather for meals and, for spiritual nourishment, in the second-floor chapel. On their porch, they will form relationships with neighbors, living in solidarity.No Comments
Rarely do we have a cover story so full of art options. But even with hundreds of photos to choose from, this one stood out.
The Autumn 2017 issue of University of Dayton Magazine features a scene viewed by students as they stood along the rails of a ship navigating up the Yangtze River toward China’s Three Gorges Dam. The golden light illuminates a scene both modern and timeless, illustrating the vastness of the students’ experience as River Stewards learning about the waterways of China.
Two photographers accompanied the students on their summer study abroad. Kong Nai is the marketing coordinator at the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou and has shared with us beautiful photos of events at the China Institute. Zhong Jianming is chair of the department of photography at the Media College, Nanjing University of the Arts, and his work has been exhibited in China, South Korea and the United States.
The yellow hues of the photo by Zhong jumped out from the options Frank Pauer, our art director, offered. It’s not often we get to produce a cover that feels totally fresh, different from what we’ve done in the past. I had the same reaction to the Rudy Flyer cover from more than a year ago: Rudy, arms wide, reaching out from a completely white background. (Spoiler: Pauer is posing in the costume.) In 2009, the staff was captivated by the originality of an illustration of a devolved Darwin perched in a tree.
Sometimes, art does not turn out as we expect, and then we scramble for a new option that is worthy of the time you invest in the magazine. We know you have lots of options of how to spend your time. We strive to always give you something intriguing and interesting, something you can connect to or wonder about long enough to pick it up and flip the pages to Class Notes (where 50 percent of you turn first).
This month, we’ll be sending out a magazine survey. We hope to hear from you about what you like and what you want us to make better. Because while we love the photo we chose for the cover, we didn’t pick it for us: We picked it for you.
Click here to read the digital autumn magazine.No Comments
Since November 2015, senior Adrienne Mauri has been feeding the Marianist brothers of 100 Chambers St.
As a dietetics major, Mauri has learned about food quantities, temperature and safety. As a cook, she has learned to navigate the extensive spice rack at the brothers’ home.
“Cooking was just a big part of my childhood and something that, in my family, we would do together,” Mauri said.
Three to four times a week, Mauri visits the Marianist brothers to prepare dinner for them. She puts together a protein, a vegetable, a starch and a side salad for their meal. Her planning process sometimes includes recipes she’s pulled from Pinterest, while other times she said she just “wings it” with whatever the brothers have in the kitchen.
Despite the experience she’s had with cooking, Mauri was hesitant to take the position as she had never cooked for so many people before. Depending on who is living in the house at the time and whether or not they have company, Mauri may cook for anywhere from three to 15 people.
“I just want to make sure that they’re all happy and that every-body’s needs are being met,” Mauri said.
The house on Chambers represents different cultures, including brothers from places like India and Haiti, which also teaches her to formulate a more inclusive menu. The brothers, she said, are always gracious and receptive.
“She does a very good job with spaghetti and meatballs,” said Brother Bob Hughes, S.M. “She makes her own sauces to go with chicken. They’re always different and very good.”
Mauri said she’s glad she took a leap and accepted the responsibility because she loves her time spent in the kitchen.
“It’s been really relaxing for me,” Mauri said. “It’s like a type of therapy. I truly believe that food and cooking are an art form. It’s a way to relieve stress.”
The experience has made her consider incorporating cooking skills in her future career. Her ultimate dream is to own a healthy restaurant.
If you’re up for a stroll into the future, walk into any laboratory on campus.
The spirit of discovery is palpable — and builds on a rich history of creativity and innovation at the University of Dayton.
On my first day as president last summer, I toured engineering labs, talking with students and faculty about advanced materials and vision-guided robots. Their passion moved me. Their work amazed me, and it continued to do so all year, whether in a tour of the materials division in the University of Dayton Research Institute or listening this summer to the Berry Summer Thesis Institute students present their research.
In the pages of this issue, you’ll find stories of discovery that changed humanity for the better — from rare earth permanent magnets in electronic devices to space food, from better black boxes to Claritin, an allergy medication. Our alumni, researchers, faculty and students have a track record of conducting research for the common good.
We’re unlike other major research universities. The vast majority are focused almost exclusively on discovery-driven research, hoping to achieve impact in future years. Here, we encourage the full spectrum of scholarly approaches, from fundamental to highly applied, because we want to advance the state of the art and quickly solve today’s problems.
It’s precisely this mix of pragmatic and inspired innovation that has elevated our national research stature. Pop quiz time:
Who now ranks ninth in the country for sponsored research at private universities without
Who ranks second nationally for federally sponsored materials research and development?
And for bonus points: Who tops all Catholic universities and all in Ohio for sponsored engineering R&D?
If you guessed your alma mater, you’re right.
Our annual sponsored research volume hit another new record this fiscal year, growing 10 percent to $135 million.
But beyond the numbers and the rankings, our research portfolio speaks volumes. We’re developing real solutions that have a real impact on society. That’s why students are cultivating an urban farm in East Dayton and designing a high school 8,000 miles away in Malawi.
Our research keeps our faculty at the leading edge of change and informs classroom teaching and learning. It impacts regional and national economic development. It allows us to provide valuable experiential learning opportunities to undergraduates and superior training to graduate students.
The stories in this issue and on “Momentum,” a new interactive website, speak to our ingenuity, curiosity and innovation.
I invite you to take a glimpse at udayton.edu/momentum — and step into the future.No Comments
In 1942, German U-boats were picking off Allied supply ships crossing the Atlantic, putting the blockaded British in dire straits and ravaging the Allied fleet. Polish mathematicians, followed by British engineers, had worked on the intelligence project known as Ultra to decrypt enemy messages. But their success was stymied by the sophisticated German naval code, and the U.S. Navy decided to embark on its own codebreaking effort. This story originally appeared in the Autumn 2004 UD Quarterly.
Among the greatest enemies of German U-boats during World War II was the ingenious mind of 1929 UD graduate Joseph “Joe” Desch and the codebreaking machines he designed, assembled a mile from campus in NCR’s Building 26 along the Great Miami River.
It’s a surprising tale even to many war scholars. That’s because, for 50 years after the war, no one working on the top-secret project uttered a word.
Now, their stories of loyalty, invention and sacrifice are being revealed to a national audience through the April 2004 release of the book The Secret in Building 26 and the documentary Dayton Codebreakers, being released this fall. It’s a familiar tale of Dayton ingenuity and hard work, with roots in a Midwestern sensibility and Marianist education that provided Desch with the tools to crack the code.
An impossible task
In 1942, German U-boats were picking off Allied supply ships crossing the Atlantic, putting the blockaded British in dire straits and ravaging the Allied fleet.
Polish mathematicians, followed by British engineers, had worked on the intelligence project known as Ultra to decrypt enemy messages. But their success was stymied by the sophisticated German naval code, and the U.S. Navy decided to embark on its own codebreaking effort.
Enter Joe Desch and Dayton’s National Cash Register Co.
Desch had been building a reputation for himself since he joined NCR in 1938. In an effort to speed the calculations of NCR’s cash registers, his engineering team created the first electronic counter that could log a million counts per second. His work foreshadowed the coming computer age, and the Navy wanted to use that technology to break the German code, known as Enigma.
The intellectual, physical and spiritual struggles that ensued during those 14 months were as monumental as the innovation, and they only started to be revealed in the last 15 years. Debbie Desch Anderson, who was born in 1950 and didn’t know during her father’s lifetime of his war contributions, responded to a challenge her father issued before his death in 1987.
“Dad used to say, ‘Honey, you’ll never figure out what I did,’ and that was the wrong thing to say to me,” says the 1971 UD graduate. “He underestimated me.”
Her task, at times, was almost as daunting as her father’s. During a 1993 visit to Washington, D.C., she went to the National Security Agency with an armload of classified documents she found among her father’s possessions. Seeking answers, she instead endured hours of questioning and the ultimate confiscation of her records.
In 2001, at the National Archives in Washington, Anderson found a memo signed by her father’s hand.
“I started crying, because he’s a historical figure, and he’s my dad,” she says.
Through her research, Anderson learned that the Navy pushed repeatedly for an all-electronic decipher machine, while Desch insisted that an electromechanical hybrid could do the same job and take less time to produce. It was an intellectual struggle that wore on him, further strained by the moral obligation he felt to the men who were dying on warships, waiting for intelligence that would allow them to evade the U-boats.
But Desch was prepared to fight for his electromechanical hybrid and succeed. He had behind him an army of 600 WAVES — Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service — to assemble the deciphering machines, called “Bombes,” and an engineering staff of 24, whom he managed with deftness and grace. Edward DeLaet, an engineering technician, remembers how Desch handled one of the numerous demands placed on him by the Navy. For the documentary, DeLaet recalls Desch saying, “They just gave me another impossible job. Impossible jobs I can do; it will just take me a little longer.”
Breaking the German Engima was a herculean task. When Desch worked on Ultra, the Germans had progressed from a three-rotor to a four-rotor encryption machine. The alphabetized rotors and plugboard settings — which transposed individual letters, further confusing the message — were changed daily. The German code clerk chose which four letters were to appear through small windows next to the rotors. These letters indicated the initial rotor settings for any given message, and the code clerk changed those settings with every message he sent. The resulting message looked like a string of completely random letters to anyone not knowing the day’s settings.
To understand how difficult it is to arrive at the right combination of rotor and plugboard positions to decode a message, Wittenberg University physics assistant professor Dan Fleisch related it to the number of atoms in the universe. The number of possible combinations for the Enigma machine was 10 to the 145th power, compared to 10 to the 81st power, the number of atoms in “all the 50 billion galaxies,” Fleisch says.
“Imagine trying to find one specific atom out of all the atoms in all the stars in all the galaxies in the universe,” he says in the documentary now being completed for public television. “You are trying to find that one that represents the setting of the machine on that day. It is an impossible task unless you have some advantage other than simply trying all the possible sequences.”
The machine to do it was dubbed the “Bombe,” possibly after a frozen dessert fancied by the original Polish codebreakers. Just as Desch required an army of workers to build the machine, Anderson needed a host of scientists, historians, intelligence agents and Bombe workers to fit together the pieces of Desch’s life and tell the story of Dayton’s codebreakers.
Cradled in creativity
To understand Desch, Dayton Codebreakers roots him firmly in his Kirkham Street house wedged among three rail lines in the Edgemont neighborhood that sheltered Italians, Jews, Germans and African-Americans.
Anderson says her father may have caught the creative genius from his father, one of a long line of wagon makers, or was thrust into it by his mother, a German immigrant who insisted on a Catholic education for her son.
“Living on the West Side and being exposed to all the different populations, the different businesses, gave him the confidence and even the imagination” he needed to invent, she said.
As a teenager, Desch taught himself how to blow glass to create vacuum tubes. He would order so many unusual chemicals for experiments that, one day, a chemical company representative showed up on his parents’ doorstep looking for the chemist “Mr. Desch.” His parents directed the man to the boy in his basement lab.
The documentary also sets Desch in a city that fostered great minds and unusual solutions to extraordinary challenges. Desch lived only blocks from where the Wright brothers were testing airplane water landings on the Great Miami River and just across the river from NCR, where John Patterson created new models for business and hired men who would go on to found or lead IBM, Delco, Packard and Standard Register.
It was a combination of a Midwestern work ethic and ingenious know-how that cultivated such inventors, said Paul J. Morman, a UD history professor with a special interest in regional innovation early in the century.
“There’s something about the Midwest that fostered a creative genius that was willing to rethink problems in a fundamentally different way and could do so without established wisdom saying, ‘That’s not the way you do it,’” Morman says.
In the documentary, Anderson describes her father as humorous, opinionated, stubborn and charming. Even as a child, the traits that defined the man she knew were evident. He thrived at Emmanuel Elementary School, where the Marianists stressed quality and creativity with an ethical base. Despite an episode in which he slugged a Marianist who disagreed with him on a math equation, Desch attended UD’s preparatory school on scholarship and gravitated toward an experimental field of electrical engineering, studying toward a bachelor’s degree under Brother Louis Rose, S.M.
“He was Dad’s engineering professor, but it was a brand-new field, and they were learning together,” Anderson says. “The whole love-of-learning thing was part of Dad’s personality, but it was further developed while he was (at UD).”
Desch developed a special relationship with other young Marianists, including Brother Lawrence Boll, who taught Shakespeare, and Brothers Ulrich Rappel and William Bellmer, who shared Desch’s love for science. Anderson says her father would meet with them after school hours to “goof off” and experiment with ham radios.
While he held only a bachelor’s degree, Desch was folded into circles with some of the brightest minds in the nation. Anderson’s mother would tell the story of attending a function at MIT, where he would be introduced as “Dr.” Desch.
“They couldn’t understand that someone so brilliant had only an undergraduate degree,” Dorothy Desch would say.
The highest credit
Desch taught one term of physics at UD before moving on to work at Frigidaire, and then at NCR. Wartime interrupted his cash register work, and the Bombe became one of more than a dozen war assignments for Desch.
The Bombe proved a messy, hot, cranky challenge with a tight timetable. Desch’s service to the Navy began on March 9, 1942. He endured long hours, a severing of ties with his German relatives and constant personal surveillance, including officers assigned to live in the two-bedroom home Desch shared with his wife.
By May 28, 1943, his first two Bombe prototypes — dubbed “Adam” and “Eve” — registered “hits,” highlighting the encryption pattern that could be used to decipher all intercepted transmissions on that day.
The Bombe was taller than a person and twice as long, a cast iron and steel machine with miles of wiring attached to thousands of vacuum tubes. It would whir and grind as it spun out the possible letter combinations, joining with other Bombes on the floor to create a deafening noise.
Shirley McKenzie Anderson (no relation to Debbie Anderson) was one of the WAVES stationed in Dayton. She later traveled to Washington, D.C., to operate the machines.
“It was a clanking sound, with all those machines going at different times and clanking at different times,” she says for the documentary. When the Bombe would hit a pattern that made sense of the code, “it was crash, boom, bang,” she says, reversing itself and halting at the combination where the hit was made.
Desch’s engineering team and the WAVES constructed 121 Bombes and sent them by rail to Washington, D.C. Of those 121, only one machine remains intact, housed in the NSA Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Md.
The Bombe’s contribution to the war is hotly debated, but Baylor University associate professor of history Eric Rust gives the Bombe project the credit he believes it’s due. The son of a German U-boat officer and a former member of the German military who has experience with Enigma encryption technology, Rust calls the Bombe’s effect “tremendous.”
“The Dayton operation gave the Allied side, especially Americans, a tremendous advantage by saving the Allies time, by not wasting resources on operations that would have otherwise not been necessary had there been no Enigma intercepts,” says Rust, who is featured in Dayton Codebreakers. “It saved personnel and it saved lives because fewer were exposed to the dangers of the war.”
Based on the combined efforts of the Bombes operating in Washington and the Ultra project in England’s Bletchley Park, Rust says that up to 54 U-boats were destroyed.
Desch’s contributions were also noted by President Harry S. Truman, who signed Desch’s 1947 National Medal of Merit citation.
“By his brilliant originality, superb skill and immeasurable perseverance, he contributed essentially to the effectiveness of important technical developments of great significance in the successful conclusion of the war,” the citation reads. “Mr. Desch’s technical skill and fine professional judgment reflect the highest credit upon him, and upon the scientific tradition of the United States.”
Such glowing words grace a piece of paper yellowed with age and once forgotten. It’s a story that’s no longer top-secret, ready to be classified among America’s greatest success stories.
Michelle Tedford inherited her love for military history from her father, Clint Tedford, the first to tell her the story of the 1835 Toledo War.
by Emily McAlesse
We floated atop the Yangtze River alongside cliffs where monkeys run wild and goats trek up their faces. The blue water reflected the rusty colored cliffs of this magnificent wonder. The air was so fresh that one breath in and you feel the energy filling your lungs and your soul.
Nine River Stewards joined Chinese tourists in viewing this natural wonder of China, one of the waterways that helped us learn more about social, cultural, political and economic forces that shape this country.
China conveys a culture that wants to do things big. And when I say big, I mean BIG. That thinking can be seen in the design and planning of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, but it can also be described as the most controversial dam in the world. Completed in 2003, this dam forced 1.3 million people to move because of rising water levels and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages.
Along with us on our floating classroom was professor Wang Yipei from Renmim University of China, who for 17 years has been documenting life in the river valley. He stressed to us to dig deeper into what the people have lost. It wasn’t just their homes; they lost their spiritual connection to the land where they lived and their ancestors are buried.
The boat stopped at a cultural site called Fengdu Ghost City, advertised as one of the few remaining religious sites along The Three Gorges. After we were grouped with the other English speakers, our guide walked us to the entrance where 7-foot statues stood guard. The guide described how these warriors protect the ghost city. Some of the statues there had been relocated here from places now under water; others were recreations. Dr. Dan later challenged the group to consider how the scene has been adapted for tourism.
Our tour guides talked of the damming and flooding with pride for this grand innovation. But we learned that within China, there is not widespread knowledge of the environmental impacts or the challenges people faced. Some people had to swap rural lives for homes in skyscrapers. I began thinking of all the ways that waterways impact a society. As a sociology major, I help research Dayton’s immigrant population, but I had never stopped to consider internal displacement. As a River Steward, I also thought about our push for renewable energies. As China is becoming a leader in renewable energy, part of that is from hydropower, which initially sounded good to me. Now I know there are pros and cons to each development decision, which will make me look more closely at the projects happening to my neighbors upstream and downstream as I paddle along the Great Miami River watershed.
My study abroad experience in China smashed all the preconceptions I’d had about the country. Everything I read and heard had told me China was crowded and polluted, that I wouldn’t like the food or understand the traditions. Still, I cautiously accepted the invitation to apply to study there. This was an opportunity to compare how China and the United States manage waterways and regulate the governments and industries that use them. After meeting the country’s citizens, floating on its canals and visiting its temples, I learned my preconceptions were wrong.
Like so many other UD students who have studied in China, the River Stewards used the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou as our base. This was a great advantage for us. We took orientation classes and got acclimated to the city. In class, we presented on the books we had read prior to traveling to China, including on China’s green revolution and the economy of water.
One of the greatest assets of the institute is its staff, who work with our faculty to ensure we feel welcome. They are also there to help those of us unaccustomed to international travel. When the money machine ate my bank card, Dong Zhang, the institute’s director of student programming, responded to my plea over WeChat and picked me up at 7 a.m. to help retrieve it.
While in Suzhou, we stayed in apartments where UD students attending the China Institute typically stay, as well as students attending other universities around the area. I became friends with students from England, Germany, France and other places around the world. I learned about their studies and their perspectives on China. And it was really awesome to have those apartments as a home base that we could return to after long days of venturing out.
One weekend, we traveled with the other students from the China Institute to a place that would become my favorite town. It was a water town, one of many ancient places built along the waterways around Suzhou. Our first glimpse of Zhouzhuang revealed rows and rows of colored windmills hanging from clothes line throughout the town. Every two or three streets would be separated by a canal, along which you could visit silk shops, jewelry makers and ice cream vendors. It was breathtaking.
Before going to China, I didn’t have any desire to go to China. Now that I’m back, I want to speak out and encourage every student to go. How can you not be passionate about the culture, the institute staff, the fashion trends? I’d go back in a heartbeat. China not only left a lasting impression but also proved to be a beautiful, green country filled with kind and generous people.
The Grand Canal is so long, we flew from one end to see the other. It begins in Beijing, where we saw a stagnant body of water walled in by stone upstaged by the bustle of Tiananmen Square. It ends in Hangzhou, where smaller waterways branch off among neighborhoods and people still travel and trade by water.
The Grand Canal, which became unified during the Sui dynasty of the seventh century, is the longest canal in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built to connect the emperor’s city to others for trading and communication. Cities along its more than 1,100 miles have recently become tourist destinations, bringing business to its residents. Just north of Hangzhou, where the canal meets the Yangtze River, the waterway runs wide and barges still haul coal and other goods.
As River Stewards, our mission is to educate the community about the importance of our watershed and natural resources. When we went to China, we wanted to observe the Grand Canal at several locations to see how the people there interact with their water systems and resources and compare that to what we see in Dayton.
Chinese people have developed a unique and beautiful relationship with the canal, building water towns along the edges. In Old Suzhou, which has been called the Venice of the East, its residents hang laundry from lines above the waterways and vendors serve stinky tofu. To connect with the water, its citizens just open their doors or sit along their terraces. Old Suzhou is also a popular tourist destination. When you take a ride in an old-fashioned gondola-shaped boat, you can hear the people singing ancient songs and observe diners sitting in cafes under the light of red lanterns.
In Dayton, we have a very different relationship with the Great Miami River. Much of the shoreline is paved with bike trails and public parks, as well as business and industry. People must travel from their homes to experience all that the river has to offer. As a River Steward, I strive to connect the residents of Dayton with their aquatic neighborhood by providing opportunities to paddle, learn and grow.
As Stewards, we explain the history of our watershed through exhibits in the RiverMobile. So we were excited to learn about a special project at the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou, which is along the Grand Canal. Chen Jing, a professor at Nanjing University teaching at the China Institute, is working with UD and other universities to preserve and display the history of the Grand Canal. She showed us ancient maps of the canal that had been painted onto scrolls. CJ and her photographers recreated these maps with current photographs of the sites to demonstrate the development and modernization of China’s cities. I’m excited we’ll get to help with this interactive presentation to be featured on campus in Roesch Library this October. It’s one of the ways we can bring the lessons we learned back from China to share.
I first went to China in spring 2016 to spend a semester at the UD China Institute. As a computer engineering major, I was there to take mostly engineering classes. But I had also just completed my first semester as a River Steward, which really shaped how I viewed my study abroad experience. In Suzhou, you pass waterways everywhere, including on your walk from the student apartments to the China Institute. They are hard to miss. As a River Steward, I wanted to learn more about how the Chinese use their water systems and protect their water.
I decided to focus my study on Lake Tai, the third largest lake in China. It borders large cities like Suzhou and dozens of smaller cities and villages that are home to chemical processing factories that use lake water. Pollution gets dumped back in the lake, as does agricultural runoff from the lowlands that stretch to the South China Sea. Both contribute to blooms of blue-green algae that kill fish and make the lake smell.
This summer, I got to return to Lake Tai. When the Rivers Institute bus stopped by a bridge near Wuxi on the northeastern edge of the lake, we saw Lake Tai’s vivid green water that smelled of dead fish and sewage on one side of the bridge. On the other side was Lihu Bay, with bright blue waters and natural vegetation. At one time, it had also looked green and sickly. Dr. Dan and Dr. Wang arranged for government officials to tell us how they cleaned the bay. First, they walled it off from the lake with the bridge. Then they required industry to relocate away from the water’s edge and planted natural vegetation to slow and filter runoff. Dredging cleaned pollutants from the muddy bottom, while the existing water was cleaned and flushed with water from cleaner sources.
After the presentation, the Stewards wondered, “What’s next?” We were skeptical that the intensive and costly
cleanup of this one bay could be replicated along more than 200 miles of shoreline through multiple jurisdictions.
But we also wondered what was next for us. What role and responsibility do we have as River Stewards? As with any challenge, we apply the breadth of knowledge and experience present in our interdisciplinary cohort. And we listen to the community to determine how our resources can contribute to a community-based solution.
Along with our director Leslie King, Dr. Dan and Dr. Wang, we are now discussing how the Stewards might participate in water quality monitoring at Wuxi. Having the China Institute as a base opens up the possibilities for participation in a variety of projects, whose results we could apply in our own backyard. I know if any one of those projects offers a way for me to combine my computer engineering education with
water quality, I’ll happily head back to China for the third time.